My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“I always thought a shipwreck was a well-organized affair.”
“So did I,” Conner replied, “but I’ve learnt a devil of a lot in the last five minutes.”
This was my first book by Erik Larson but it won’t be my last. This is narrative history at its finest, fact that reads like a novel. Judging from the works cited, the research strikes me as top-notch, with sources including survivor accounts, diaries and letters, hearing testimony, ships’ logs, wartime telegrams, and other memoranda. As with Titanic, there were so many little things – the Cameronia, one unused boiler, fog, more children and babies on board than usual, calling Germany’s bluff, lifeboats rendered unusable by the extreme list to starboard, no destroyer escort – that all converged in a massive passenger liner being torpedoed and sinking entirely in less than twenty minutes.
Any other man would have found this scene terrifying. Brooks was entranced. He saw the body of the torpedo moving well ahead of the wake, through water he described as being “a beautiful green.” The torpedo “was covered with a silvery phosphorescence, you might term it, which was caused by the air escaping from the motors.”
He said, “It was a beautiful sight.”
I can only imagine Larson’s process of immersing himself in the research and writing of an undertaking such as this story, particularly the social and political arena in which Lusitania embarked on her last Atlantic crossing, which tipped the scales toward America’s entry into World War I: “Finding these things was half the fun. Every book is an expedition into unfamiliar realms, with both an intellectual and a physical component. The intellectual journey takes you deep into a subject, to the point where you achieve a level of expertise. A focused expertise, however. Am I an expert on World War I? No. Do I know a lot now about the Lusitania and World War I-era U-boats? Yes. Will I ever write another book about a sinking ship or submarine warfare? Most likely not.”
On to the next intellectual adventure. I am glad he has books I have yet to enjoy, so I don’t have to spend quite as long waiting eagerly for the next one.